“I knew where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, I just wasn’t sure how I would get there,” says CA alumna Leah Berger Jensen (‘CA 99).
After graduating from Colorado Academy and then from Connecticut College with a dual degree in Cultural Anthropology and Gender and Women Studies, Berger Jensen considered for her medical training both a small Ivy League college and a Big 12 state university. Ultimately, she decided on the mid-sized private school of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. She received her Master of Public Health degree from Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in 2004 with a focus in International Health and Development.
“I had all intentions of coming here and then going abroad,” says Berger Jensen. And with a goal of working with traditionally marginalized populations, she knew what that looked like. She had worked in Ghana, Kenya, and Thailand; she had applied for fellowships from the Centers for Disease Control, and she was anxious to get into the fields of reproductive health or preventing HIV.
Then, “I realized that working in those parts of the world, I was always going to be an outsider.” Berger Jensen decided, “I was going to be much more effective here than anywhere else – right here in my own backyard.” Already, she knew the need was there. At the time in 2005, parts of New Orleans had staggering statistics for life expectancy, education, literacy, access to health care. This is echoed by Berger Jensen talking about where her city ranks on the lists that define equity, “New Orleans has historically been at the bottom of the best and the top of the worst”.
Berger Jensen watched as that need became critically acute in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. She describes starting a health clinic on the sidewalk after the storm, with nothing more than a cooler, to administer tetanus shots. “We had doctors and residents outside on park benches talking face-to-face with patients. There were no exam rooms, no charts, no medical history, no computers. In many ways, this back-to- approach trained better physicians.”
That effort gave way to the Tulane Community Health Center at Covenant House, of which Berger Jensen was the first full time employee. She managed the clinic, raised her own funding, and worked to build capacity in the public health safety net of New Orleans. Her efforts helped to create the Tulane University School of Medicine’s Office of Community Affairs and Health Policy.
“I can’t pinpoint the moment that I knew I wanted to work in healthcare,” says Berger Jensen. I think Colorado Academy’s holistic approach was incredibly important to how I view the world and the community. The work that I do day to day is all about community and that is a value that has been instilled within me from the very beginning and because of my time at CA.
What I learned from CA was not just rigor. Yes, academics were incredibly important, but what I remember were requirements for sports and the arts.” She choreographed CA’s musicals, took part in sports, loved Interim, and became engaged in the community. “There was an equity and fairness and humanity in all of this. At the end of the day, that’s what CA did a tremendous job of.”
Berger Jensen says the closeness of the CA community is something she has also found in New Orleans. “There is something special to that kind of closeness and community. When you walk on the CA campus, you feel something different. In the work that I do today, trust is critical. The groundwork and framework for my approach started at Colorado Academy.”
After working seven years at the School of Medicine, Berger Jensen wanted to broaden her reach. Just last year in 2013, she hung out her own shingle in New Orleans for The Berger Group, a consulting company designed to help communities improve health outcomes. Among her clients, the Veterans Administration in New Orleans, charter schools, and community health centers including Tulane’s community health program that is now the newly remodeled and renovated Ruth U. Fertel / Tulane Community Health Center.
She is, as much a public health practitioner, an innovative convener, collaborator, and catalyst that creates results – not often accolades that are paired with health institutions. Consider the ReFresh Project at North Broad Street and Bienville Avenue in New Orleans.
“Our goal with this project was to create a fresh food hub based in mid-city New Orleans with the goal of creating a healthier community. The project includes 65,000 square feet of mixed-use space, and features a Whole Foods organic market, a community farm, a center for Culinary Medicine, and a culinary work readiness and leadership program for at-risk youth -- the first of its kind in the country. It is no coincidence that that the ReFresh Project is located just blocks from the health clinic.
“A healthy community is everybody’s responsibility,” she says. In fact, only ten percent of health is what happens in a doctor’s office, the other 90% is what happens outside the walls of a clinic.” And that, she says, is where thr health system today is lacking. “The health system has not caught up with health care” in this country, she says.
Staying caught up with Berger Jensen may be difficult, too. Her long list of accolades includes being selected one of New Orleans’ CityBusiness “Women of the Year” this past summer, an honor highlighting professional and community achievements. Berger Jensen also has been named one of the nation’s “100 Great Disruptive Heroes” by the author of Hacking Work for her pioneering efforts to improve the health care delivery system, and subsequently featured in the follow-up book: Disrupt! Do Epic Sh*t: 25 Successful Habits for an Extremely Disruptive World.